Citizens’ Assemblies during ‘The Troubles’

In Northern Ireland, there is growing interest in the use of citizen assemblies to address pressing political issues like reforming the Good Friday Agreement and discussing Northern Ireland’s constitutional future. Only recently, the UK Parliament’s Northern Ireland Affairs Select Committee has recommended that the UK Government should ‘begin preparations to begin a Citizens’ Assemblies’ looking at a review of Northern Ireland’s political institutions.  At the grassroots level, the Civic Initiative group has announced an ambitious year-long set of deliberative activities to get people talking about their social, cultural and economic rights and to produce recommendations to take to the British and Irish governments and the Northern Irish Executive. 

This article aims to demonstrate the historical role that civil society initiatives, particularly citizens’ forums, have played in Northern Ireland by examining the Opsahl Commission, and its contribution to the Northern Irish peace process in the 1990s. 

Initiative ‘92 & The Opsahl Commission

Between May 1992 and June 1993, a Northern Irish civil society group called Initiative ‘92 established an independent citizens forum to ask ‘ordinary’ people to explore ‘ways forward’ out of the deadlock of ‘The Troubles’. The forum was called the Opsahl Commission, chaired by the eminent international human rights lawyer Torkel Opsahl. During a bleak time of rising sectarian violence, public cynicism over the possibilities of a political settlement and deep mistrust between communities in Northern Ireland, the Commission gained over 550 submissions from individuals and groups representing 3000 people. It also held 19 days of public hearings, 2 school assemblies and its final report, with 25 recommendations, was published to much publicity in June 1993. 

The core idea behind Initiative ‘92 and the Opsahl Commission was ‘people-power’: giving people a platform to talk about their ideas for the future. It originated with Robin Wilson, then editor of Belfast’s Fortnight magazine, and Simon Lee, Professor of Jurisprudence at Queen’s University Belfast. Lee and Wilson wanted to bring the public into discussions about Northern Ireland’s future and to promote ‘dialogue at all levels of society.’ Initiative ‘92 invited people to make submissions to its Opsahl Commission, which would receive them and host hearings for people to present their testimonies to a public audience.

Over the course of 1992 and 1993, Initiative ‘92 energetically promoted their campaign. Eschewing the behind-closed-doors approach of the ongoing party political talks, Initiative ‘92 used soap box hustings, town hall meetings, leafleting, open letter writing, collaboration with other civil society groups and vital outreach work on the streets of Belfast and Derry to canvas for submissions for the Opsahl Commission. Their promotional slogan was ‘No One Asked You… Until Now.’

A poster by Initiative '92, with their promotional slogan: 'No one asked you... until now' and a hand with a microphone in it.
Creative Commons Licence: Divided Society.

Bringing in new voices 

The core vision of giving ‘ordinary’ people a voice proved inspiring to many and created a cross-community movement advocating for public dialogue. High profile support came early from over 220 patrons, including the poet Seamus Heaney, Nobel Peace Prize winner Mairead Maguire and from many civil society figures in both communities. Unionist and nationalist papers alike promoted the Initiative’s objectives with headlines like ‘NI Public Urged To Speak For Peace’ and ‘Public Urged To Take The Initiative’. 

The Initiative’s major achievement was in hearing the views of people not well represented by Northern Ireland’s party political system, which focused, almost completely, on Ulster’s constitutional status. Submissions came from women’s groups, faith groups, trade unions, business forums, paramilitary prisoners, community development programmes, and human rights activists. 

In their submissions, people spoke about a whole range of issues which did not easily fit into the Northern Irish political binary of nationalism versus unionism, including experiences in their communities and their hopes and concerns for the future. A labour activist spoke about his frustration at the lack of democratic accountability in Northern Ireland after 20 years of direct rule from Westminster. Women’s groups spoke about the need for better political representation of women as well as better provision of childcare. Community development workers explained the deep feelings of powerlessness and alienation in urban areas of Belfast and Derry. A leading member of the Church of Ireland spoke on the relationship between deprivation and political violence. And a sixth form student reflected on her frustration that much of her identity was derived solely from her being born Protestant. 

The Commission also gave groups and individuals opportunities to reflect on positive developments which suggested that Northern Ireland was working towards a better place after years of conflict. The Commission collected examples of integrated education initiatives, cross-community reconciliation work, and groups working on inclusive cross-cultural projects. Many testimonies spoke of the widespread acceptance of power-sharing between communities and a deep desire to achieve a political settlement to end the conflict. While so much of the public discourse at the time was defined by violence and political stalemate, the Commission showed that there were more issues to address than Northern Ireland’s constitutional question and brought to light promising signs of improving relationships within Northern Ireland.

When it came to the public hearings, which were eagerly observed by journalists, the Commission had packed agendas – balanced between prominent commentators and people with lived experience in their communities. The first day of the hearings in Belfast on 19 January heard testimonies from prominent former civil servants Kenneth Bloomfield and TK Whitaker, the Presbyterian minister Dr John Dunlop, and the academic Cadogan Group. Also giving testimony were Sally McErlean, ‘a plain-speaking woman’ from West Belfast who spoke about deep economic problems in her area, and Mary Leonard and Kathleen Feenan from Twinbrook’s Women’s Information Group, who discussed the lack of support that groups like theirs received, despite doing ‘valuable work in their communities.’

A poster promoting the oral hearings of the Opsahl Commission. It is a list of venues in January and February 1993, including universities, business centres, town halls, museums and libraries across Northern ireland.
Creative Commons Licence: Divided Society.

The hearings were covered extensively in the British and Irish press, television reports and radio shows, sparking a major public debate about how to address Northern Ireland’s social and political issues. The papers’ reports outlined major issues that a peace settlement would need to address: power-sharing, strengthening human rights, changes to the Irish constitution, and the role of the Republic of Ireland in Northern Ireland’s governance – to name just a few. In this way, the hearings and their press coverage focused public dialogue on what issues a future settlement needed to resolve, preparing the public for areas of compromise and giving people some hope that it was achievable.

More controversially, the Opsahl Commission hearings prepared the public for an inevitable fact of the peace process: bringing the paramilitaries in from the cold. From the start of Initiative ‘92 the group had agreed that parties like Sinn Fein and the Ulster Democratic Party, who represented paramilitary organisations, should be given the opportunity to make a submission and speak at the public hearings. Though not everyone supported it, it created space for these parties to enter into public dialogue and have their own positions questioned by the Commission. This all happened before Sinn Fein were included in the formal political talks and before the British Government had openly admitted talking to the IRA via back channels. 

Many of the newspaper reports struck an optimistic tone, seeing real value in public consultation and optimism for the future. One woman from Strabane attended the Derry hearings because of a feeling that she ‘needed to say something’. She came away at the end of the day telling a journalist that the Commission had given her ‘a wee bit of hope’.

Civil Society’s Role in Promoting Dialogue 

The Commission went on to publish its final report in the summer of 1993. Many of its recommendations anticipated core aspects of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, including the need for a power-sharing executive; the principle of ‘parity of esteem’ between unionism and nationalism; and the protection of human rights in legislation. The report was covered extensively for months in the press that summer, provoking a more informed public debate about political progress based on the voices of Northern Ireland’s citizens. To back up their recommendations, the Commission published polling data which showed there was widespread support for many of them, demonstrating public desire for politicians to progress their political negotiations. Many of the recommendations were adopted by dozens of civil society organisations and the report clearly influenced the positions of the British and Irish governments, who embedded the notion of ‘parity of esteem’ as a key principle of the peace process. 

When thinking about the role civil society can play in peacebuilding, it’s important to recognise that civil society organisations do not do the things which represent the key historical moments in peace processes – for instance, calling ceasefires or signing the international peace agreement. Yet, civil society can contribute to what John D. Brewer calls ‘the spadework’ done by ordinary people to create better conditions for politicians to negotiate peace.

The main achievement of the Opsahl Commission was showing, at a time of political deadlock and rising violence, the importance of facilitating widespread public dialogue about Northern Ireland’s future. The Commission enhanced debate, brought in a range of new voices from across communities, and prepared society for the coming peace process by getting people to reflect on their own views and listen to the perspectives of others. For many people – those involved in the Commission, those who made submissions, those who reported on its work, those who adopted its recommendations – it gave them a sense of hope and optimism about the future and the possibilities of peace.

The Opsahl Commission remains relevant today in two important ways. Firstly, it is an extremely valuable – and underused – source of the hopes, fears, experiences and attitudes of many people within Northern Ireland during The Troubles. Though much historical literature on the peace process has centred political elites, the Commission’s work can help historians to ask more questions about the under-explored areas of Northern Ireland’s peace process which sat outside of the formal political process.

Secondly, at a time of growing interest in bringing ‘ordinary’ people into discussions about pressing political issues, the work of Initiative ‘92 and the Opsahl Commission offer an inspiring example of the valuable contribution that deliberative democracy can have in discussing Northern Ireland’s challenges and ideas about its future. 

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